Border Nation - Leah Cowen
Updated: Jun 15
Leah Cowan writes giving a brave, critical, eloquent yet brutal unearthing of the elite, capitalist and colonial legacy behind the British border regime; stating it’s "Erected as part of the global passport system which preserves ideologies, prevents free movement and oppresses populations". She argues for a world without borders, because it’s fair and just.
For Baobab, who works for refugee and migrant women, this would mean they could cease to exist, not needing to advocate with migrants, validating a system that rejects some of their rights to reside. The book makes the case to work more to disrupt the "good immigration narrative that relies on migrant communities toeing the line, self-policing, and making sure to contribute to the economy while being compliant in state processes".
Cowan shows how the old empire is not just a thing of the past, quoting Boris Johnson who in 2002 wrote in the Sun, that "the best fate for Africa would be if the old colonial powers... scrambled once again in her direction’’. This ‘golden era thinking conveniently overlooks a crucial detail, that slavery was abolished and colonialism in its primary form overthrown by the rebellion of people living in colonies’.
She gives a brief but referenced historical context to migrant flows into the UK, which included African and Asian people being present for the last 500 years. Migration increased dramatically from the 1950’s when Britain invited people to come to work and live from their commonwealth. That was after colonizing, for example, Jamaica and transporting slave ships there to grow cotton and tobacco. Cowan, reflecting on the past, brings it into why the present situation exists in a clever and inviting way. For example, asking, why is this history not in the school curriculum? And how can ‘59% of Brits be proud of empire?'.
She continues analyzing the mainstream media’s role in shaping public opinion to allow those in power to stay there, and borders to stay in place. How "mainstream media fails to recognize how structural racism continues the colonial project in the present day". They attack working class solidarity with ‘divide and rule tactics... separating working class and migrant communities into citizens and non-citizens, deserving and undeserving, fraudulent and honest...’ The dehumanizing language of the refugee crisis plays out with phrases including "migrants are like cockroaches". Cowan regularly references other authors who consider structural racism, particularly Akala, who said in an interview "let’s be clear the moment human beings become non-human beings, brings a mandate for murder, there’s a long historical parallel for that". A recent reminder being the Rwandan genocide, which was further incited by the media. An official in Rwanda's ruling Hutu party, Mugesera, described the minority ethnic Tutsis as 'cockroaches' telling more than 1,000 party members that they should kill Tutsis and dump their bodies in the river. Thus resulting in the majority Hutu ethnic group becoming malicious machete wielding maniacs. She links how the liberating war children of Afghanistan and Iraq, now refugees, cross the Mediterranean to "make life threatening journeys directly related to British military intervention". Something that anyone who believed democratization of the Middle East was positive for the populations could even question.
Thinking about how everyday people are being made into border guards is another chapter. Our health workers, school teachers, landlords to name a few. It’s not all critic, the resistance to these controls is discussed with successful legal challenges. However, the system is getting worse, outwardly provoking real concern amongst those seeking protection and looking to migrate into the UK. The highlighting of women’s issues rings true: how "50% of police forces report sharing survivor’s immigration details with the home office... migrant women do not feel suited in dealing with experiences of violence... feeling the perpetrator would be believed over them". We know that this is the story traffickers tell women "you cannot leave as no one will believe you, you will be deported home straight away". Borders encourage and perpetuate the control traffickers have. Cowan succinctly analyses that migrants are people ‘with their own lives, their agency, hopes, dreams and aspirations becoming footnotes in a reductive story about villains and victims’. Her books encourages more humanity by highlighting the structural inequalities, nationalism and racism, then suggesting ways to resist.
Detention is also visited, seeing people locked up for wanting to move to a new country. Something that continues to resonate with me is the value of having a British passport. Many countries welcome British people with open arms, maybe there's a fee or a work/student permit application, however, most just give a stamp at the border without hesitation. Quoting from the book "the government is disproportionately locking up and retraumatizing people who have left their homes and communities behind and survived difficult and dangerous situations to come to the UK". Just yesterday, a woman refused protection and coping with destitution told me how much she missed home, if she could go back, she would love to, but it’s not safe. We laughed about missing being welcomed at home, or dropping in unexpectedly to a neighbor's for dinner, unlike here where without a pre-booked appointment, its likely you won't get through the front door!
Further mentioned is how much big companies also benefit from borders, which is an important reflection as to why the system exists. For example, "paying a detained woman £1 to cook and clean in her own detention center, ... savings pile up for the government and profits pour into private companies... competence and transparency are not key specifications when contracts are awarded, companies are notorious for engaging in shady and controversial business". Clear lines are drawn between G4's and Serco, the housing providing companies we email daily over asylum contracts. Alongside this, they are also running private security and prisons linked to Israeli occupation of the West Bank... corporate watch can tell you more on that. Cowan makes detainees relatable for the people they are, not those that other people fear.
To end Cowan gives hope and inspiration "it’s crucial to bear in mind the context of the hostile environment, legal challenges and policy change are difficult to enact. We will never convince the government to dismantle its own power, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth attempting to make short term improvements to the material realities of people crossing the borders in the meantime".
This reminds me why Baobab exists, "solidarity, being led by the needs, skills, knowledge and actions of people directly affected by border control". Not a savior culture, but one of working to "eradicate an inherently unequal border". Cowan highlights the difference individuals and groups witnessing deportations can make, "eight passengers refused to sit down on an air China flight until a Chinese asylum seeker was taken off the plane. Borders can be broken down by everyday people performing acts of resistance in their workplaces". The anti-raids, and no borders ideas and actions "are not niche or marginal interests, they are lived and breathed by anyone who defends our ability to move freely".
Anyone who leaves home, and travels to a new country, should be in support of anyone else who chooses to do the same. However, the destination and company gives rise to support for free movement. For example: going to Ibiza to sunbathe, party or meditate, focuses on personal growth, self love or even for pure entertainment. But visit the Tigray region in Ethiopia, currently a victim to war and famine- your thoughts would be resting with should you stay for the holiday, or jump on a plane home so you can avoid night raids, bombs and food shortages?
The conclusion tries to consider the arguments against a border-less world- it's a bit shakier that the rest of the books clear messaging, but they are big topics covered in small spaces. Does the privilege of resource and power mean we have to persuade people that they need to treat others with the respect they expect to be treated with? If you prefer free movement, no borders makes sense, unless you are exploiting others, to benefit and take advantage of a system created by those with power and money. I hope lots of people read this book, as well as travel and live amongst other places and cultures to understand that their own world is just one of many. Perhaps this book will challenge mindsets and encourage readers to do just that.
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